[24 August 2011]
An open letter to Justin Furstenfeld, lead singer/guitarist for Blue October
Re: Blue October’s new album, Any Man in America
I received a copy of this album a few days ago with the intention of reviewing it. I wasn’t familiar with the work of your group before this, with the exception of having heard your song “Hate Me” on the radio once or twice a few years ago. I didn’t care for the song, and if I had control of the radio I made sure to go to another station, but it didn’t inspire any sort of grudge against your band. Once it stopped appearing on the radio I simply forgot about you.
But now I have the task of reviewing an entire album of your group. I have now listened to it. To put this in the most polite way possible, this music is most definitely not for me. But it is my job to review this album in detail, so I shall. I will try to be as objective as possible, so if you are at all offended, Mr. Furstenfeld, it’s more than likely due to my sometimes brusque manner.
To put my opinion in slightly stronger terms, I see nothing whatsoever in this music that could possibly appeal to anyone. So I had planned on filling this review with all sorts of savage attacks upon your music, but I was curious to discover just why I disliked this album so much.
After doing some research about the group, reading other articles and reviews as well as browsing fan forums, YouTube comments etc, it became clear that among your fanbase there seems to be something of a “cult” mentality. When someone says “Blue October sucks”, your fans are quick to vehemently defend not just the band, but you specifically.
It seems that you are without a doubt the focus of this group, as evidenced by the production of your new album. This is my first complaint against your album; the actual evidence of this being the work of a band is hidden by the over-production across all the tracks. Everywhere there are little things going on that overpower the actual craft of a working band. The bass guitar is buried in the mix to varying degrees to where it is inaudible at points. The guitars are completely absent in parts in favor of electronic noises, keyboards, synthesized ambience, etc. Even when guitars are up-front in the mix, they sound off. For instance, at the beginning of “The Honesty” I honestly have to wonder if that acoustic guitar is actually a keyboard-emulated guitar sample or something of the like.
Furthermore, the drums are heavily processed, compressed, and at times swapped out for what is clearly a drum machine. What isn’t being played by a drum machine is suspect in my mind. I have seen enough live clips of your group to know that your brother/drummer is incapable of playing fills as complex as the ones that appear at various points. So maybe they were overdubbed, which is not as bad as what I suspect actually occurred. Let me ask you; were the drums largely samples as well, instead of live drums? I ask because things like the cymbal decay sound less than genuine to my ears. I could be wrong, but either way the sound of the drums is distracting at best. Lastly, the violinist in your group only appears sporadically to provide flourishes. His instrument is not given time to shine. It seems to fill a role in your group to lend some kind of authenticity to the band, and therefore to the songs. Having a violin as part of the ensemble gives the impression that there are more layers to the songs than there might actually be. After all, the violin is a serious instrument, unlike the standard rock orchestration of guitar, bass and drums (and piano/keyboard sometimes).
So the point I am trying to make is that with all the other members of the group relegated to the status of a backing band, the emphasis is all on you. Your vocals are not only the most prominent thing in the mix, they are all over the place. There are so many ridiculously unnecessary backing vocals, harmony vocals and straight-up spoken word overdubs with no clear purpose that it detracts from the actual songcraft. There is no need to listen to melodies or chords etc. because there are so many different vocals going on that one gets extremely distracted. Furthermore, the melodies themselves are obscured by the overabundance of ambient and “ethereal” vocals and sounds. Having such sounds means that you don’t need to write actual melodies that will stick in one’s head, which is exactly what you failed to do. I have listened to the album three times now and the only part of the album I can remember is the chorus to “The Chills”. And in all honesty, I don’t like your voice. It is weak at times, flat at times, and altogether has a tone that I find displeasing to the ear. When you use the method of doubling up your lead vocals with two different tones of voice, like you did on ‘Hate Me’ and like you do on several songs across this album, it seems like an attempt at hiding your lack of vocal prowess.
Your album is extremely self-indulgent. Only one of these songs (discounting the pretentious introduction which only serves as an aural blanket to wrap the listener in instant melodrama) only one song is under four minutes long with four of the 12 songs going over six minutes. There is certainly nothing wrong with longer songs, but in this case, the songs are padded out by simply repeating the chorus several times at the end for no reason other than to hear it again, or perhaps simply singing some kind of inflections over the changes of the chorus. Such is the case for well over half the songs, all of which could have been at least a minute shorter. When more than a quarter of a song simply goes on without contributing anything new, this is one of the paragons of self-indulgence. It is the equivalent of a person who talks just to hear his own voice.
I believe that you knew this, as the obvious single “The Chills” is concise at a pop-friendly three-and-a-half minutes. It even has one of the quickest fade-outs of any song I’ve heard, as if it knew it had to get off the stage before its allotted time ran out. It’s also the only song that seems to be written from a perspective that doesn’t necessarily have to be yours. The lyrics seems to be cut from the cloth of vintage Springsteen, with the whole concept of love as a means of escape from chains that are both emotional and physical. This is also the only song that seems definitively like the work of an actual band, where the guitars, bass, and drums are the focus as opposed to all of the unnecessary studio wizardry that mars every other track (although there is still a fair amount in this song). To me, all the pieces of the song fit together to seem like an obvious bid to have another hit, which means that certain aspects of your music are far more calculated, and therefore less straight-from-the-heart than you might be willing to admit. Still, the chorus of this song is at least semi-catchy.
The rest of your songs fall into only two categories; angry or sad. The rest of the emotional spectrum is completely ignored. Lyrically, every line in these songs can be placed into one of the following categories (all of which are interrelated); you love your daughter, you hate your wife and her new guy, someone has done you wrong, and you have mental problems. There is nothing wrong with having all of the songs adhere to a certain topic; a “concept” album is a viable option. However, since ‘The Chills’ completely breaks the ‘concept’, this proves in my mind that you are driven not so much by a muse but by commercial desires. “The Chills” is meant to lure in listeners who would otherwise have passed you by in hopes that they will purchase the album and become another receptacle for your anger and self-pity.
As I said, every other song is about you, usually in very explicit terms, going so far as to include actual phone conversations (or convincing facsimiles) from your life, something that seems to me like a desperate maneuver to prove your pathos has a source and is justified. There is nothing wrong with confessional songwriting; by now it is a staple of popular music. However, songs that dive this deeply into the singer’s personal life simply do not work for a number of reasons. Firstly, if there are too many personal details, a lot of the audience loses the ability to relate. How many people listening to those songs are in those exact circumstances? Secondly, these songs only gain their power if the listener actually knows the story behind them. If I, as a reviewer, had not been given your press packet regarding the origins of these songs and had not done research on your life on my own, I wouldn’t be able to see where the songs are coming from or if they were based on real events. The only possibility of completely conveying the proper emotion and conviction in your words hinges on knowing that this is actually what you are going through. Therefore, someone who is completely unfamiliar with you would be less likely to sympathize and find something to enjoy in the music, because they would not be emotionally invested in a stranger.
Look at the example of John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band. Sure, Lennon was a tremendous songwriter, but the emotion in those songs is overwhelming because he was one of the four most famous people of the 1960s. If he was an unknown, those songs would have largely failed because no one would have known everything that led up to writing them. Writing songs that are far too “in the moment” and event-specific is dangerous. Lennon tried just that on his next album, Some Time in New York City and as a result that album is widely regarded as his worst. The only songs from the album that people tend to remember as great are the ones that don’t follow that compositional method, those being ‘New York City’ and ‘Woman is the Nigger of the World’.
If you look at all the great “confessional” songwriters you’ll see that while it is clear that they are referring to specific events, they are cagey enough to avoid giving away all of the details. Think along the lines of Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison or even your own beloved Elliot Smith. Your lyrics, meanwhile, alternate between explicitly relating the circumstances of the custody battle over your daughter, leaving nothing to the imagination of the listener (“The Flight (Lincoln to Minneapolis)”, “Any Man in America”), and painting a vague portrait of melancholy using cliche imagery/poetic devices (“The Feel Again (Stay)”, “The Money Tree”). The content of your lyrics, often meant to entice sympathy, sometimes comes off as somewhat violent and even borderline misogynist, such as your tirade in “Any Man in America”, especially with the guest vocals from rapper Ray C. on that particular track calling your wife a “bitch” repeatedly. There are two sides to every story, Mr. Furstenfeld.
Your “rapping” on several tracks seems like another commercially driven ploy. After all, Eminem is a highly successful white boy who has made plenty of songs about how much he hates his wife and loves his daughter (and for the record, my criticisms of you are largely paralleled with those against him). Perhaps you thought this approach was too good to pass up and decided to try your hand at “rapping” on several tracks. I can’t say for certain, but I can say that this approach sounds very awkward sandwiched in between melodramatic ballads. Another thing I found odd is that one of the central tenets of rapping, the rhyme scheme, is often ignored. Many of your lines don’t even rhyme!
Altogether, musical sophistication is largely absent from the album, eschewed for the aforementioned studio-supplied ambience. These songs were written almost completely with typical and overused diatonic chord progressions. The number of chords in a song is not an indicator of quality, but when they are used in this manner, where you already know what chord is coming next because you have heard plenty of songs like this, it displays a lack of imagination and unwillingness to explore musically.
I cannot recommend this album to anyone. Like I said, the only part I found tolerable was the chorus of a single song, and this particular snippet is merely average rather than stellar. This is my personal opinion, Mr. Furstenfeld. I would not be surprised if, after reading it, you think that I am a snob or a jerk etc. But there is something you should know. Something that makes me qualified to give my opinion on your music. And that, Mr. Furstenfeld, is that I am just like you.
I am a musician, I have battled depression and thoughts of suicide, I have been an addict, I have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I have been directly involved in ugly custody battles, all things that you are or claim to be. I am your target demographic, and I am telling you that your music is offensive to my ears. I feel that you seem to equate suffering with art (as your press release explicitly calls your group a “multiplatinum art rock band”), and assume that simply because you have had difficult times in your life, that any form of self-expression is automatically elevated to a work of art. This is not so. True, many great artists have suffered, but many did not. Lord Byron, second only to Shakespeare in the English language, was grossly wealthy and a notorious adventurer and lothario. This is just one example.
Furthermore, I suggest that your suffering is entirely pedestrian. To lift from your own work, any man in America can go through exactly what you are going through, and my existence is proof that many do. There is nothing special about you and your story. This is not meant as an insult, it is meant as an assessment of your creative potential. If you truly wish to be an artist, you cannot simply explain your station in life. Like playwright Edward Albee said, “Good writers define reality; bad ones merely restate it.” You seem entirely disinterested in doing the former, convinced you already are that good writer. Because of this, I don’t see you as the Narcissus of Greek myth, despite the self-obsession and self-importance that permeates your ‘art’. You are Pygmalion, the sculptor who fell in love with his own statue. Your creation, your Galatea is a statue of yourself as an artist. No matter how real it looks, it is not a living thing.
Feel free to refute my opinion. Feel free to contact me to discuss it further, and I hope you find some measure of peace in your life. For a number of reasons not necessarily related to your current circumstances, I think you need it.